Maybe you’re not like me.

Maybe you don’t REACT to everything.

Maybe you should be writing this post about defensiveness…

In this week’s podcast episode, Caleb talked about defensiveness and how you can disarm your own defensiveness. I especially need to learn how to disarm my defensiveness, as I seem to react every single time to the slightest provocation!

Why is it that I can react so strongly to the smallest thing? I think it’s because I like to be right and I hate being wrong. That’s just me, and I’m ok with that, but I’m not ok with the defensive overreacting!

I was glad to hear that there is a part of defensiveness that is born out of our God-given instinct towards fight, flight or freeze. Defensiveness is the “fight” part of that. So maybe I’m not always overreacting – it’s a comforting thought to know that I can and will defend my loved ones when needed!

However, defensiveness in marriage goes beyond that and can become problematic. It is deflecting blame back on your spouse and saying, “I’m not the problem; you are!” Caleb says the antidote to defensiveness is to accept responsibility for your own stuff.

He makes it sound so simple…

So I asked Caleb, why does being defensive NOT work in marriage?

Because the more you defend yourself, the harsher your spouse has to be to get through to you. The thicker the concrete wall, the bigger the bomb needed to get through those walls.

Being defensive sometimes is not going to wreck a marriage. However, Dr. Gottman talks about the four horses of the apocalypse: the four most destructive features in marriage and defensiveness is one of them. He says that when all four horses are present in a relationship his research shows there is more than an 80% probability that the marriage will fail unless corrective action is taken.

I don’t know about you, but I want to eradicate any features in my marriage that will cause it to fail.

Why do we get defensive?

It could be that you or I have a fragile ego. Because we’re feeling fragile, we interpret our spouse’s disagreement with any of our ideas, choices or behaviors as a personal attack. “If you challenge my ideas, you are challenging me!” That’s about ego, hence the need to defend as if being attacked.

We may get defensive to protect ourselves, but in actuality, it produces more conflict – more of what we don’t want!

It may feel like we need years of therapy to get our fragile egos sorted, but here are two tips which can have an immediate impact in lessening our defensive reactions.

Tip 1: Say, “You could be right.”

That’s it.

So easy.

So simple.

Yet it creates such a powerful mind shift.

The next time you find yourself reacting to something said to you, and your instincts want to kick in to defend yourself, instead say, “You could be right.” That buys you some time to calm down without automatically going into fight mode! It keeps you open and lets you hear any genuinely constructive criticism that could be valid or actionable.

Even if the only good in what your spouse is saying is in the intent and the content is not worded well AT ALL, by saying “You could be right” you lower your own emotional resistance. It gives your spouse influence, which in turn puts you in a powerful place. If you shut your spouse down (by getting defensive), they are most definitely going to shut you down. Then you’re in a crazy cycle you don’t want to be in!

Tip 2: Bring in an imaginary third party.

Ask the question, “How would you respond if someone said that…”

Benjamin Franklin used this technique. It works very well if your spouse is being close-minded. It helps to keep us in a place of curiosity rather than having a knee jerk ‘fight’ reaction.

For example, Jack comes home hungry and says to his wife, “I can’t believe you haven’t started dinner. I’m really hungry! You’re just sitting there relaxing, while I’m starving!”

A typical (defensive) response that Jill might make would be something like, “You’ve got hands, why don’t you make dinner! Why do you expect me to be your slave!?”

That conversation went nowhere but down the tube!

Think about the direction the conversation could have gone if Jill had brought in an imaginary third party and answered something like this: “How would you respond if someone told you that I had a brutal day at work myself and was totally burnt out and discouraged when I got home?”

That question gives the conversation a completely different tone, and if I was Jack I hope I would be like, “I’m sorry, baby, I totally got my hangry* on. I’ll grab us a snack and order in pizza.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing Jack’s initial behavior, but the “third party” pointed out Jack’s bad attitude and caused a change in his tone and behavior without the wife having to mention it! A win-win situation for all involved!

I’m still defensive. I’ll admit it. But it’s something that I am working on in my marriage because I want it to be thriving and passionate! (That and the fact that I have a husband who lovingly enjoys pointing out my defensiveness using his lovely sense of humor…)

*hangry: angry because I’m hungry. Awesomest word ever! Thanks for that one, Ally!

Image courtesy of Barry under the Creative Commons license.